Archive for October, 2014


Causal effects of divorce?

It’s very common for people to cite statistics about how children from divorced families do worse, on average, than children from parents who stayed married. Outcomes for the children from these families might include things like depression, teen pregnancy, high school graduation, college diploma, arrests, or (their own) marital success.

Most of these statistics simply compare children from divorced parents with children whose parents remained married (possibly controlling for some factors, such as SES, age, and race). However, this is really not the right comparison.

Denote by Z the divorce variable. This is just a yes/no indicator function. If Z=1 the couple gets divorced and if Z=0 they don’t get divorced.

Let Y be an outcome of interest. For example, Y could be whether or not the child ends up graduating from HS, income level at age 30, happiness level at age 25, whether or not they get arrested by age 30, etc. Just imagine some kind of thing that we care about that we think might be affected by divorce.

So, typical statistics on outcomes of divorce involve comparing average values of Y|Z=1 with average values of Y|Z=0, where the vertical bar can be read as ‘given’ or ‘conditional on’. But these are two populations, and differences in Y might not have anything to do with divorce (i.e., this is not a causal comparison).

Instead, we might want to consider what would have happened if the people who got divorced did not get divorced. For that, we will need potential outcome notation. Denote by Y(z) the outcome that would have occurred had Z been z. So, we might be interested in average differences between Y(1)|Z=1 and Y(0)|Z=1. The second term is counterfactual in that we do not observe Y(0) for anyone who did get divorced. We could think about ways of estimating it. However, I will argue that this is not what we really want.

Divorce tax

People generally perceive that divorce is a bad thing, especially if the people getting divorced have children. I will focus here strictly on the married/divorced with children scenario.

I sometimes hear people argue that we should make it harder for people to get divorced, that there should be more social stigma attached to it, etc. The collection of penalties for getting divorced might include the following: legal fees; reduction in disposable income (the parents will now likely have to pay for two places to live, rather than one, etc); loss of some relationships (might lose contact with members of your ex’s family; some friends might stop talking to you); the kids might be extra stressed and might act out in various ways, making parenting more difficult; feelings of guilt or shame; stress from divorce and/or custody negotiations/hearings; sadness at loss of relationship. Let’s call this collection of penalties the divorce tax.

The divorce tax can be increased or decreased. Laws could be passed to change how difficult it is to get divorced (making it either more or less difficult). Fees could be changed. The level of social pressure to stay married could change.

Denote by R the divorce tax. For simplicity, think of this as a univariate severity measure (for example, with larger values meaning more of a divorce tax). This is our policy-like variable, as it is something that can be moved. We could increase R by making divorce more shameful, or expensive, or just harder to obtain. We could reduce R by taking away divorce stigma, making it easier, or making it cheaper.

Now consider the effect of R on Z. Using potential outcomes notation, we have Z(r), which is the indicator of divorce if we set R=r. Thus, if Z(r)=Z(r’), then the change in divorce penalty from r to r’ would not affect whether or not the couple got divorced. If, instead, Z(r)=1 and Z(r’)=0, then changing the divorce tax from r to r’ saved this marriage.

The current divorce tax is R=r. Should we change it to r’, where r’>r (i.e., should we make it more difficult to get divorced)? Or should we change it to r*, where r*<r?

Note that, if r’ is close to r, then, for most people Z(r)=Z(r’) (we wouldn’t expect a small change in divorce tax to affect many people). So what we would really like to do is focus on the cases where the change in R does affect Z. That is, a comparison between the average value of Y when we set R=r versus R=r’, among people for which Z(R=r)\ne Z(r’)

In other words, picture the subset of married people who are having problems and would get a divorced under the current divorce tax, but wouldn’t if the tax were at the higher level r’. Would their children fare better under divorce tax r’? Keep in mind that we are restricting to couples who are having serious enough problems that they would get divorced at the current divorce tax level. Is staying together good for those couples?

I made a few simplifications in the above for clarity. I should mention, however, that we would want to capture a time element in several ways. It could be that the higher divorce tax just delays divorce ( for example, think of people who stayed together strictly for the kids, and then got divorced after their youngest turned 18). Is delaying divorce good?

Other effects of divorce tax 

There is an additional challenge that I haven’t yet addressed. The divorce tax itself could directly affect the outcome (not through its effect on divorce).

Consider people who would get divorced under either divorce tax level r or r’. Their outcome Y(Z) might differ, depending on whether R=r or R=r’, even though Z(r)=Z(r’). The higher divorce tax might not prevent the couple from getting divorced, but it might make their lives worse (more stress; bigger financial burden; more shame).

We therefore might expect that lowering R could improve the lives of those who would have gotten divorced anyway. Thus, any discussion of what the right level of R is should consider both the costs and benefits.

Traditional marriage

There seems to be a desire by some to get back to traditional marriage, where divorce was extremely rare and people who did get divorced experienced great shame (i.e., a high level of R). By traditional marriage most people are thinking of farming era up until, say, the early 1900s. However, the purpose of marriage was much different back then. People needed to stay married to survive. They needed children for labor. As Sarah Perry put it

..children were essentially the property of their parents. Their labor could be used for the parents’ good, and they were accustomed to strict and austere treatment. Parents had claims not only to their children’s labor in childhood, but even to their wealth in adulthood. To put it crudely, marrying a wife meant buying a slave factory, and children were valuable slaves.

In situations where spouses and children are not necessary for survival, marriage becomes much more about romance, connectedness, personal growth, amusement, and companionship. For a large part of the population, the commitment is more about assurances of being loved than about assurances of being financially cared for. (although there are still plenty of people who are married only because they can’t afford not to be)

I don’t think people who are sad about the increasing divorce rates are really longing for marriage as it used to be. It seems to me they want the best of both — romantic love that never ends. This, however, would be a new state — not something we would be returning to.

Discourage marriage?

Current US culture is one where marriage is pretty strongly encouraged. When you date someone, it’s not uncommon to get questions about whether and when you will get married. People get very excited about the possibility of planning a wedding celebration. However, if we believe that divorce is bad, then an alternative way to potentially reduce the divorce rate is to discourage marriage (or less strongly encourage it). One could argue that too much divorce just means that too many people got married. I like this idea, because I am not entirely comfortable with the idea of making commitments for your distant future self due to the consent problem.

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Part 1: The Healer

Part 2: Captioning your own portrait

Part 3: Münchausen spectrum disorder

Part 4

Imagine a parent who has extreme tunnel vision empathy for their own child, at the cost of empathy for anyone else. Whenever their child is rude or mean, the parent thinks of every possible reason why their child might have acted that way, and blames those other factors. The parent can really feel all of the things that might have led to the child acting out. They think, “If only other people understood how their actions make my child feel, then there wouldn’t have been a problem in the first place.” The same level of consideration is not given to how their child made other children feel. The child is never held accountable.

In some cases, the start of this hazardous parent-child dynamic occurs when the parent begins to believe that their child has some kind of disability (which they might actually cause — see part 3 above). Asperger syndrome (AS) is a typical example. The parent becomes a very strong advocate for their child. Whenever their child is aggressive, the parent makes everyone else take responsibility for it (because the other people just don’t understand how to properly interact with their special needs child). The parent’s identity ends up being SUPER PARENT: THE 24-7 MY CHILD ADVOCATE. They are always on guard for their child getting bullied and never lets anyone hold their child responsible. The parent basically creates a bully, while sculpting an identity of an anti-bullying, pro-child hero.

Consider the following case study of Brenda.

Brenda has a child, Paul, who was diagnosed with AS. He’s in fourth grade now. He is very high functioning and, in fact, before he had years of this kind of parenting, you probably wouldn’t have guessed that he was on the autism spectrum.

Brenda writes:

Does anyone out there understand Autism? Holy Shit! Why do I have to school the teachers every year? It is BS!! Paul’s teacher gave him a warning in front of 20 other kids! Paul does not get warnings! He does not take things like that very well. I guess this year the teachers will HATE ME!

In other words, “My child did something wrong. How dare the teacher give him a warning! I guess she doesn’t know about Asperger syndrome. Well, I will educate her. She must shield my child from any responsibility. If he does something wrong, she needs to talk to him politely and privately in private, while making sure to take into account the fact that something in the classroom environment probably triggered it.” Here, Paul likely did something to harm others (whether it’s disrupt the class or say something mean or just not follow a rule). Brenda shows no concern for how Paul might have affected others. But she is very concerned about him being singled out. She must teach the teacher how to act. Basically, she is ready to bully the teacher into submission.

Brenda writes:

Paul hit a child at school today. He was in line and a kid cut in front of him. He said he wanted to tell the teacher, but the teacher wasn’t there. He was so close to using his words to solve the problem! He is making so much progress!

In other words, “Good job, Paul. You almost didn’t hit someone!”

Brenda writes:

Tomorrow is a new beginning for Paul and I. We are going to see a Specialist, get some major testing done and gonna KICK AUTISM’s ASS! Rock on Mommy Warrior!

In other words, YAY ME! I am the best mom!

Brenda writes:

So….I had to send an email to Paul’s teacher today! And YES, I called another kid an asshole! If the shoe fits, wear it!

In other words, she called a fourth grader an asshole.

Brenda writes:

Paul’s teacher asked him if he could chew quieter! She really doesn’t get it! Paul needs to chew with his mouth open because of his sensory issues. It calms him.

Basically, if people are grossed out by how Paul eats that is too bad! He is not capable of eating quietly and with his mouth closed because SENSORY ISSUES (for which there is no evidence that this is actually due to a sensory issue). There is no effort to teach Paul to think about others. There is only effort to force other to put up with anything that Paul does. All of this is done from the perspective of I’M AN AMAZING PARENT.

Her life is a consistent combination of: identifying as a mommy warrior; advocating for Paul constantly, by not letting anyone criticize him; bullying teachers and anyone else who gets in the way of her agenda; creating a child who learns that anything aggressive he does is everyone else’s fault.

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If someone has a terminal illness — one that will result in a lot of suffering — it seems like pretty much an ethical Pareto improvement to allow them to have the choice to end their life a little earlier. But then I read this horrifying article where the author pleads with Brittany to suffer more. This was done from a Jesus loves you and has a plan for you perspective. I don’t want to talk much about the specific article, because the poor logic and factual errors are as bad as the morality. But as an example, consider the statement “In your choosing your own death, you are robbing those that love you with the such tenderness, the opportunity of meeting you in your last moments and extending you love in your last breaths.” Obviously, it is only if you choose the time of your death that you can guarantee that your loved ones will be there with you, if that is important to you. Another example: “For two thousand years doctors have lived beside the beautiful stream of protecting life and lovingly meeting patients in their dying with grace.” Except that’s not what happens (in most cases). Apparently this person hasn’t read who by very slow decay.

I know, I know, christians have a different perspective. They believe God wrote the bible and took a stand against assisted suicide. So let’s temporarily accept the idea that the bible is the word of God. Did God really have much to say about this issue?

Suppose you have a terminal illness and there is a pill that will almost surely reduce your pain, but might slightly shorten your life by a tiny amount. To be specific, let’s say there is a 1% chance it will shorten your life by one day. What does the bible say about that? Since it’s not deterministic and you are not technically choosing your date of death, is it okay?

Suppose instead there is a 99% chance it will shorten your life by a day. Okay? Or consider a pill that will either kill you within 24 hours (1 percent chance) or not affect your lifespan at all (99% chance). Is this okay? What if there is a 99% chance it will kill you in a day? What if a person chooses no treatment rather than some life-extending (but unpleasant) treatment?

There are so many real-world, everyday trade-offs between quality of life and lifespan. Does the bible draw a clear line?

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(I’m going to begin with a brief discussion of the role of tenure at research universities, because that is what I am familiar with. Tenure elsewhere, such as at public schools, might be a completely different story.)

Viewed from afar (by people who are not professors at research universities): “Tenure needs to be abolished. What happens is professors work hard until they get tenure. After that, they have no incentive to produce. But because they are full professors, they make more money than the people who don’t have tenure and who are still very productive. They also get grants just based on reputation, even though they are no longer productive. In fact, a lot of times they hire low wage postdocs to do the real work. It’s a messed up system.” (note that this person seems to know more about academia than the typical person, so you can imagine even farther-fetched arguments)

Viewed from near (by me): The possibility of tenure (a tenure track position) is primarily used as something to attract the most promising young researchers. Thus, it should primarily be judged by the difference in performance between the tenure track hires and the best non-tenure track people that could have been hired, had tenure track not been an option. The people who get these positions and eventually earn tenure tend to: (a) work very long hours — a lot of the really successful faculty seem to not need a lot of sleep (it is very common to send out an email at, say, 1am, and get several replies within an hour, even on the weekend) and have a lot of energy; (b) do more work than they are officially getting paid for (many research projects, grant writing, teaching, committees, mentoring students, giving talks, writing and revising papers, dealing with IRBs, reviewing grants, refereeing for journals, serving on editorial boards); (c) have many high impact publications and develop their own research team; (d) enjoy what they are doing. So, the people who get tenor tend to be passionate about research, very driven, high energy, etc. Once they get tenure that doesn’t just disappear. This is what they like doing.

In my experience (~14 years), these are the differences that I see in people before and after they get tenure: (a) might be a little more outspoken, but not dramatically so (and not most people); (b) might be more likely to turn down an opportunity (if they are already full funded, which they probably are); (c) have much more administrative responsibilities (heads of committees, etc); (d) more mentoring; (e) more leadership roles in general, such as PI on training grant. But all of these are things that have more to do with getting more senior than it does with getting tenure. I can’t think of any cases where a very productive person became less productive after tenure, in a way that wouldn’t be explained by the shift towards more administrative effort that comes with experience.

So when I hear people talk about tenure as some kind of disincentive, I know they must not be familiar with what actually takes place. I also recognize that the view from afar makes perfect sense. I see why people would think that tenure would make someone lazy.

Electric cars

I remember watching the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” It is about how all of the different stakeholders worked really hard to kill the electric car (GM invested millions in the development of these cars, but didn’t really want them to succeed!). It was very clearly taking a far view of the auto industry. Not long after viewing the film, I happened to talk to someone who worked in the auto industry at the time. They explained to me all of the ways that the documentary got the story completely wrong. It was clear that him hearing an outsider talk about the industry was a similar experience to me hearing outsiders talk about academia. It is so easy to construct stories about organized awfulness if you aren’t actually there.

Big Pharma and FDA

It makes sense that the FDA and big pharma want to push vaccines on the public for profit if you look at it from a distance and need to construct a story. But if you work with people in pharma and/or the FDA, you see that how things actually work are just way less interesting than that.

Conflicts of Interest

I hear plenty of stories about how, if a professor takes funding from industry, then clearly you cannot trust the research. Again, this makes sense as viewed from afar. In reality, except in very rare/extreme circumstances, the world is much more boring. In a typical situation, a professor might be offered about $1000 to teach a one day course in their area of expertise for some company. This isn’t a bribe to get the professor to try to make the companies products look good (keep in mind that research professors make anywhere from 70,000 to 250,000+ per year, so $1000 isn’t exactly a powerful bribe (nor is it the goal)). In other cases, a company might want to hire the professor to help them (or lead) a research study involving one of their products. In that case, the university will assist with the legal contract. It will be spelled out that the paper will be published, regardless of the results and, obviously, payment will given for the work, not the results. University legal is very thorough about this stuff. The way it typically works is everyone agrees to a protocol, the data are analyzed (following the protocol) by people at the university. And the results are published. The world of huge bribes to influence research is just not a prominent aspect of university culture, in my experience.

Knowing is half the battle: There are a lot of organizations that I am not at all familiar with. I should be very careful to not construct some story about what takes place there.

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Extremely young humans aren’t able to effectively advocate for themselves. They might not have the language, cognitive ability, knowledge, or physical ability to communicate their needs, leave a dangerous situation, or alert authorities if they are being harmed.

Older adults are often in a similar situation. For example, a nursing home resident might not be able to march over to the local police department to report abuse by a care taker.

Both the very young and very old are dependent, to a large degree, on living in a culture where their welfare is valued.

So what about care culture? It is people who are between the ages of ~20 and ~70 that really shape the culture. They are the voters, the business leaders, the educators, the activists, etc. 100% of these culture-shapers have been very young humans in the past, and none of the people I am talking about have yet been a very old human. Thus, they have already finished with one of these two periods of time where their well-being is dependent on others. They (possibly) still have the other in front of them.

Based strictly on the information above, I would have predicted the culture would more strongly advocate for the old than the young. Your future self will likely directly benefit from a culture that takes care of older adults, but will not directly benefit from caring for the young. Yet, Scott’s description of nursing homes (quoted below) is pretty consistent with things that I have heard:

Most of the doctors I have talked to agree most nursing homes are terrible. I get a steady trickle of psychiatric patients who are perfectly happy to be in the psychiatric hospital but who freak out when I tell them that they seem all better now and it’s time to send them back to their nursing home, saying it’s terrible and they’re abused and neglected and they refuse to go. I very occasionally get elderly patients who have attempted suicide solely because they know doing so will get them out of their nursing home.

At the same time, the west is basically baby worship culture. We are horrified by any mistreatment of children. There is cultural pressure for parents to make their kids the central focus of their lives.

If we are going to care more for one group than the other, why babies/kids?

Some ideas:

  • Darwinian reasons: more important to care for young because they, and not older adults, can get genes into the next generation. (I don’t love this argument)
  • Middle-age adults are the ones who would primarily be responsible for the care of older adults (their parents, etc). These middle age adults might have already raised kids, and now feel done with care-taking. So they just allow themselves to imagine that nursing homes aren’t that bad. (I kind of like this argument)
  • People don’t think much about their own future as older adults who will need help. They just hope it won’t happen to them, but don’t give it much thought. (probably a contributing factor)

Other ideas?

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